An article published in the January 2006 issue of the American Journal of Medical Genetics examines the remains and depiction of dwarfs in ancient Egypt, concluding that they were assimilated into daily life and their disorder was not seen as a physical handicap. The journal is available online via Wiley InterScience at http://www.interscience.wiley.com/journal/ajmg.
The ancient Egyptians left an immense legacy about their culture and daily life through inscriptions and representations on tomb and temple walls, documents on papyrus, and funerary objects. In addition, the hot dry climate and elaborate burial systems have left intact many human remains, including complete and partial skeletons. As a result, Egypt is a major source of information about how achondroplasia (the bone disorder that causes the most common type of dwarfism) was perceived in ancient times.
Written by Chahira Kozma, M.D., of the department of pediatrics at Georgetown University Hospital, the paper examines biological remains and artistic evidence of dwarfism in ancient Egypt, including both elite dwarfs who achieved important status, and ordinary dwarfs. The earliest biological evidence of dwarfs in ancient Egypt dates to a Predynastic Period called the “Badarian Period” (4500 BCE) in addition to several skeletons from the Old Kingdom (2700 – 2190 BCE). Pictorial sources of dwarfism in tomb and vase paintings, statues and other art forms are numerous and indicate that dwarfs were employed as personal attendants, overseers of linen, animal tenders, jewelers, dancers and entertainers.
Several dwarfs were members of households of high officials and were esteemed enough to receive lavish burial sites in the royal cemetery close to the pyramids. There were also several dwarf gods in ancient Egypt; the best known ones were involved in magical practices to protect the living and the dead. In addition, ordinary dwarfs are depicted in at least 50 tombs and the repetition of certain pictures shows that they were well integrated into various aspects of society, specializing in certain occupations.
The depiction of dwarfs as shown in records available from ancient Egypt, the numerous figurines and amulets that were formed in their shape, as well as text from papyri invoking their magical powers leads the author to conclude that “the image of short people in ancient Egypt is essentially positive.” “Dwarfs were likely accepted in ancient Egypt and were given a visible role in the society,” the author concludes. “Furthermore their daily activities suggest integration in daily life and that their disorder was not shown as a physical handicap.”
From John Wiley & Sons